By Bob Heafner © 1989
Issue: September, 1989
For Christmas 1987, Susan Thigpen presented me with an original copy (including original dust jacket) of Zane Grey's, The Last Trail. It was published as a part of the Triangle Books series by The Blakiston Company of Philadelphia. The copyright date is 1909, placing the book among Grey's first works.
It is by no means an expensive edition and resembles nothing more than a school boy's copy of a gateway to daydreams and flights of adolescent imagination. As a school boy I devoured countless such books as I combed the shelves of Longview Elementary School's Library for its contemporaries, which fueled my flights of fancy with stories of Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark and other mountain men who pushed the American frontier to the Pacific. Susan didn't even bother to erase the penciled in price of $2.00 from the title page. She knew I love old books and would treasure her gift forever regardless of price.
During the Christmas holidays, I read the old book and found it hopelessly entangled in Zane Grey's effort to capture the romanticism of his day and time. The heroine and hero are described is such detailed and illustrious terms that a critic with less respect for this noted American writer would describe the story as maudlin.
The setting is a border fort named Fort Henry where bordermen protect the settlers from Indians, desperados and renegades. The local is rather ambiguously described as "in the Ohio Valley" and the characters refer to Fort Pitt (Pittsburg) and colonial Williamsburg. Some of the characterizations are based on historic fact. The time is soon after the American Revolution.
Early this year, while browsing through the local library, I stumbled upon a copy of History of Middle New River Settlements and Contiguous Territory by David E. Johnston, originally copyrighted in 1906. This splendid old book referred to Southwest Virginia as "the border" and the early mountain men hereabouts as "bordermen." Suddenly the old Zane Grey book took new meaning as the ambiguous "border" area became defined in my mind. Needless to say this served to whet my appetite for more books about the border and this time period.
To date, I have found a wealth of information at the local library and the library of Wytheville Community College and its Kegley Library collection. These old books all referred to the border and bordermen and soon I was hopelessly lost in my search for information about the border. Before my eyes, a history of our region unfolded that I was always aware of, but the true impact of the significance of this area to the development of the United States had literally escaped my imagination. It was here that civilization and Indian Territory clashed along the furthermost string of outposts and border forts that stretched from the New River to Cumberland Gap.
A flood of Scotch–Irish and German immigrants armed with dreams and determination, not to mention a single shot mountain rifle, forged their will on the wild frontier. They faced savages, both white and red, and the elements of nature in order to carve for themselves a home free from the joblessness and tyranny of Ulster and other European regions which they had left behind.
In The Last Trail, the villain is a white man named "Bing Legget" who preyed on unsuspecting settlers with the help of Shawnee warriors. His collaboration with the Indians made him a doubly hated renegade on the border.
The Virginia border had a counterpart to Zane Grey's "Bing Legget" in a man by the name of Isaac Crabtree, who it was said ranged with the Indians and terrorized border settlements. It is believed that he provoked the killing of Daniel Boone's son, James, and Captain William Russell's son, Henry and Captain Drake's son, (first name unknown) on October 10, 1773 in what is now Lee County, Virginia. The three young men were hunting and had collected a good number of pelts which they planned to take to market. It is widely believed that Crabtree prompted the attack by his mixed band of Shawnee and Cherokee followers in order to steal the boys' furs.
Indian war parties terrorized the border from the time of the first English settlement west of the Blue Ridge at Winchester, Virginia in 1732 to the last Indian murder on March 8, 1793 at the southern base of East River Mountain near the mouth of Laurel Creek, a branch of Clear Fork Creek in Tazewell County, Virginia. A party of 12 Indians and a white man named Rice killed John Goolman Davidson, usually called John or "Cooper" Davidson. Today a tunnel passes through East River Mountain and millions of people each year pass through it as they travel I–77 between Wytheville, Virginia and Bluefield, West Virginia without realizing the significance of this place and the events that took place here less than 200 years ago.
To fully understand the development of this region, one must understand the prevailing conditions in Europe and especially the province of Ulster in Ireland during that time period.
In 1611, the King of Great Britain, James I, undertook to dilute the Irish Catholic population of Ireland with a mass infusion of Protestant Scots into Ulster, with the eventual goal being to shift control of the country away from the Catholic Irish. The emigrants were well educated Scotts who were given every advantage by the Crown. Not surprisingly, they soon prospered and the quality of their manufacturing endeavors, primarily woolens and linens, built a reputation that has lasted until today.
Their wares were soon sought after in the more lucrative markets of London. By 1698 protectionism by London merchants and manufacturers resulted in pressure being brought to unfairly restrict the right of those Scotch–Irish merchants to export their products to England. This caused joblessness and hunger for the masses in Ulster as the Scotch–Irish factories sat idle, unable to export the sought after quality goods they made.
During this time of restricted trade, the Church of England enacted severe penalties and discriminations against Presbyterianism. The people of Ulster being, for the most part, Lowland Scotch Presbyterians, this compounded the oppression and tyranny that ruled their lives. By 1710, the conditions were so bad in Ulster that the exodus of Scotch–Irish to the shores of America had started.
Between 1710 and 1770, over half a million Scotch–Irish migrated to America. When early arrivals sent word home to Ireland of the wonders and freedom of their new home, it fueled the exodus even more.
The colonization of the United States was accomplished in a leap frog manner. Earliest settlers began by claiming the great plantation lands near the coast. As more and more immigrants arrived from Ireland, Germany and other European nations, they were forced to seek their lands farther inland toward the far distant Blue Ridge.
How they arrived on the banks of the New River and established their border forts and settlements is the story of the Blue Ridge and the rich fertile valleys that separate it from the Alleghenies further west. The story includes the Indian traders and trappers that furnished valuable pelts for export to England.
The bounty of the land they found can hardly be described. The creeks teemed with fish and beaver, the woods were a larder filled with buffalo, elk, deer, bear, turkey and other wild game in profusion. So rich in wildlife in fact, that the Cherokees and Shawnees had fought over the hunting rights to the region for years and neither tribe would give up their favorite hunting grounds without extracting a toll in blood from the white settlers who were flooding into and pushing the border westward.
Over the coming months The Mountain Laurel will share with you a glimpse of life along the border and the stories of the bordermen like Boone, Stoner and Stalnaker. This series of articles will include guest writers and excerpts from existing published works along with self–guided BACKROAD tours to take you to such places as the site of the last clash between Shawnee and Cherokee warriors in Southwest Virginia and the sites where border forts once stood as the first line of defense for a new developing nation.
From this continuing series in The Mountain Laurel we hope you will become as immersed in the history of the border as we have become and that you will see, as we have, how the heroism and determination of the bordermen and pioneers of two hundred years ago still affect the lives of every American today.